On 6 November 2017, the Zimbabwean government announced that President Robert Mugabe had relieved first Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa of his duties. The statement, released by Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Simon Khaya Moyo, said Mnangagwa was removed due to consistent “disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness, and unreliability”.
However, in reality, Mnangagwa was removed due to losing favour with Mugabe due to a sustained campaign led by Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe and her faction in Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party. Grace Mugabe is openly ambitious about wanting to succeed her husband as the leader of Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe. Her faction comprises mostly ambitious young politicians from the party’s youth and women leagues who had little involvement in the country’s freedom struggle. With most members being in their 40s or younger, this faction has been nicknamed Generation 40, or G40. Its most prominent members are the Minister for Local Government Jonathan Moyo, and Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education and second Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko. It is largely believed that now that the G40 has convinced Mugabe to remove Mnangagwa, it will now push to have Grace Mugabe ascend to the position of first Vice-President.
While the G40 faction appears to be ascendant, Mnangagwa’s faction has been under pressure for some time. Less than a month ago Mugabe shuffled his cabinet removing some of Mnangagwa’s closest allies and stripping him of his dual role as Minister of Justice. After this reshuffle, many thought it was inevitable that would lose the Vice-Presidency.
Even before this reshuffle, Mnangagwa was frequently criticised by G40 politicians at public rallies and cabinet and party meetings. However, until recently he still appeared to have the President’s support and, while the exact catalyst for the loss thereof is unclear, it is ascribed mostly due to the increasing control Grace Mugabe appears to exert over her aging husband.
While the First Lady appears to have influence over the President, it is believed that Mnangagwa retains widespread support in the military and the police. In fact, by firing Mnangagwa, Mugabe is testing the loyalty of his defence forces, especially since they are known to not be fond of Grace. In the hours since Mnangagwa’s removal, rumours have circulated that Mugabe also tried to fire the head of the armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga. However, it is believed that Chiwenga openly refused to vacate his position and even forcefully advised Mugabe to reinstate Mnangagwa. Regardless, Chiwenga is still believed to be in control of the military.
If true, this represents a brewing constitutional crisis in the country where the President’s authority over the military is not fully recognised by the leaders of the armed forces. Mugabe, at 93, does not appear to have the appetite for a showdown with his military leaders which would test his control of both the country and Zanu-PF. Chiwenga, for his part, does not appear to intend to overthrow the government despite escalating concerns of an impending coup.
Mugabe and Chiwenga appear to have a mutual respect built up over many years, but the General’s benevolent stance does not extend to Grace Mugabe. If the First Lady is appointed as first Vice-President and Mugabe dies, there is a strong possibility that Chiwenga will refuse to acknowledge her authority leading to a coup in the country which will have major ramifications across the Southern African region.
Furthermore, Grace Mugabe could potentially continue to push for Chiwenga’s removal and a further purge of the Mnangagwa faction from the government. She is deemed politically naïve with more ambition than sense and power derived mostly from her influence over her husband. Accordingly, it is possible she is unaware of the risks of openly challenging the armed forces at this time. If this were to occur, the risk of a military coup would increase dramatically.
It is believed that Mnangagwa has fled Zimbabwe fearing another assassination attempt after he was poisoned at the end of September and needed emergency medical treatment in South Africa. If Grace Mugabe is appointed as her husband’s constitutional successor, given Mugabe’s advanced age, she will have limited time to expand her influence over the armed forces to ensure that she is able to become President in the eventuality of his death.
It should be noted that, as yet, Mugabe has not named Mnangagwa’s replacement. Although he is widely expected to appoint his wife, the resistance to Mnangagwa’s firing, especially by the security forces, could be enough for him to reconsider. If Grace is not appointed Vice-President, then it is likely that Mugabe has found himself constrained by Zimbabwe’s political and military leaders opposed to his wife’s ambitions.
Regardless, Zimbabwe’s politics have entered a new and unstable period where the succession battle to replace the aging Mugabe has blown into the open. Not only are further assassination attempts and coup fears expected, but this will also continue to weaken the country’s fragile economy. Especially since for many of Zimbabwe’s key donors and trade partners, such as China, Mnangagwa was considered the point man when engaging with the country.